Pope Benedict XVI has denounced priests who have questioned church teaching on celibacy and ordaining women, saying Thursday they were disobeying his authority to try to impose their own ideas on the church.
Benedict made the rare and explicit criticism from the altar of St. Peter's Basilica in his homily on Holy Thursday, when priests recall the promises they made when ordained.
In 2006, a group of Austrian priests launched the Pfarrer Initiative, or pastor initiative, a call to disobedience aimed at abolishing priestly celibacy and opening the clergy to women to relieve the shortages of priests.
Last June, the group's members essentially threatened a schism, saying the Vatican's refusal to hear their complaints left them no choice but to "follow our conscience and act independently."
In his homily, Benedict said the dissidents claim to be motivated by concern for the church. But he suggested that in reality they were just making "a desperate push to do something to change the church in accordance with [their] own preferences and ideas."
He said Jesus always followed true obedience to God's will, not "human caprice."
Benedict's straightforward, "lucid" homily reaffirming mandatory celibacy for priests shows that the pontiff is in solid command at the helm of the Catholic Church, said the editor of the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.
The pope, who turns 85 this month, has recently taken to using a cane and other devices to help him move during public ceremonies, and some observers have speculated that the less physically vigorous pontiff's leadership grip of the church might be loosening.
But Benedict's strong call to priests to staunchly embrace church teaching on celibacy "once again erases the stereotype of a weak pope who supposedly isn't governing the church," wrote Vatican editor Gian Maria Vian in an unusually prominent front-page commentary on the papal homily.
Early in the evening, Benedict went to Rome's St. John in Lateran Basilica to preside at the traditional Holy Thursday foot-washing ceremony. There, two aides helped the pope down the few steps from the altar, but otherwise Benedict walked steadily and briskly on his own to the array of priests who sat, each with one foot bare, so the pope could pour water over the foot in a symbol of humility and service. In remarks at the service, Benedict denounced "arrogance" as the "true essence of sin."
The head of the Pfarrer Initiative, the Rev. Hellmut Schueller, downplayed the severity of the message and said the pope was merely asking for reflection on whether disobedience can reform the church.
The members of the initiative, Schueller said, will reflect on Benedict's words as part of a dialogue he hopes to open with Austrian bishops.